Forever Innocent

At the end of the movie everyone is crying - the men and women whose faces fill the screen toward the end of the 72 minutes of "J'Accuse." The scene was filmed in Jerusalem 10 years ago, at one of the huge rallies to demonstrate support for then-chairman of Shas, Aryeh Deri, who had been convicted of taking bribes, fraud and breach of faith.

Singer Benny Elbaz is onstage, singing what for a while replaced the national anthem for the Second Israel, Hu Zakai ("He's Innocent"). Deri and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef are also onstage, but the two cameras are aimed most of the time at the tens of thousands of people surrounding them, who held aloft pictures of Deri and waved blue-and-white flags that, instead of a Star of David in the center, bore the slogan "Deri, the nation is with you."

One of the cameras focuses from a distance on two seminary girls in school uniforms with their hair pulled back, both of them weeping, embracing. From their lip movements it is clear that they are very familiar with the words of Elbaz's song: "Aryeh, we love you. Aryeh Deri, you won't fall."

"A masterpiece," muttered Shmuel Calderon last week, while we were viewing the film together, as the final scene came on. Calderon was the photographer, the director, the sound recorder, the editor and one of the creators of the film, together with Uri Zohar and Deri himself. The movie, which was designed for home viewing, caused an ecstatic reaction in the streets when it was screened in a loop in development town synagogues and kiosks.

Released exactly 10 years ago, the videotape was distributed in over 250,000 copies and became a milestone in the history of Shas, and apparently in the history of the New Israel as well. It brought the struggle of radical Mizrahim (Jews of north African and Middle Eastern origin) to a climax, and incidentally also achieved its main purpose at the time: raising Shas to the height of its power: 17 Knesset seats.

It was the ethnic high point of the election campaign, in which the "ethnic genie" emerged from the bottle and spurted in all directions, with comments such as "rabble" (actress Tiki Dayan on Likud voters) and "Anyone but Deri" (the leader of Labor at the time, Ehud Barak). The film, which was also designed to rehabilitate Deri's name after his conviction, presented reasoned arguments for the defense alongside blatant manipulations: the use of the Holocaust, the use of small children, of religious symbols and of the Holy One blessed be He himself. There was good reason why the movie became the subject of academic studies and articles, and why it was and still is screened for students in departments of law, communications and social sciences.

Two things make the film an important document even today. One is the intention of the main character, Deri, to return to politics in the coming months. The second is that viewed after a decade, the harsh messages of the time, especially the attacks against the rule of law system and its representatives, sound highly relevant. What shocked the Israeli political center at the time - the fact that a senior politician dared to attack the court and to attribute secret and racist agendas to it - has become a matter of routine a decade later.

While Deri and certainly Shas have toned down since then and become part of the establishment, their anti-establishment messages have become increasingly legitimate. It is doubtful whether the Deri Affair and "J'Accuse" are what brought about the coalition that is now attacking the Supreme Court, the State Prosecutor's office and the Israel Police, but they certainly contributed to it. Today the critics of the system include a former president (who is accused of rape), a prime minister and former and incumbent ministers (some of whom have been investigated or tried), and a justice minister who recently concluded his tenure.

"Many things that appear in the videotape have become widespread," says Deri to Haaretz. "Look at Daniel Friedmann with all his criticism - I'm a wimp compared to him."

Today he may be a wimp, but 10 years ago Deri directed a small slaughterhouse in front of the camera: "I'm telling you the truth, as a person with experience, there is a clear and unequivocal tendency here. There is a group in the State of Israel that feels that this is their country," he told the viewers. "They have decided to establish a secular state here, in which it is forbidden to mention the Torah, it is forbidden to mention Judaism, it is forbidden to mention Shabbat ... There has been no precedent for such a conviction, so tough, so brutal, so cruel, lacking any humanity, in a live broadcast. Perhaps in the Eichmann trial, perhaps in the Demjanjuk trial. And Aryeh Deri."

Work on the videotape began a few months before Deri was convicted in the Jerusalem District Court. Calderon, who was involved in preparing broadcasts for Shas for several election campaigns, decided on his own initiative to collect material in advance of the upcoming election campaign. "I took a camera to the court and filmed anything that moved, just in case," he says.

He gathered dozens of hours of film, including interviews outside the courthouse. Even on the day of the conviction Calderon did not stop filming the battalions of police that were deployed in the city streets, the supporters outside the courthouse, the stunned and pained faces after the reading of the decision, in which the judges sentenced Deri to four years in prison and a fine of NIS 250,000. If there was anger in the street, it is not evident in the film.

According to Deri, immediately after the decision he asked to disappear from the public arena and resign from the leadership of Shas, in order to prepare himself for an appeal to the Supreme Court. "I came to Rabbi Ovadia and told him the attorneys' opinion. Good friends came with me too, and said that I had to be released because if not, I would be endangering myself and my family, but the members of the Council of Sages said, in tears, 'You can't leave us now two months before the elections, and we are handing down a Beit Din [religious court] ruling that no harm will befall you.' They cried and cried and I began to cry along with them."

After they convinced him despite everything to lead the party to the elections, Deri said he went to his confidante, Uri Zohar, formerly a secular filmmaker. "I sat with Uri Zohar, and he asked what kind of election broadcasts I wanted. I said it was impossible to ignore the trial. After all the dirt they said about me, there is no choice but to respond at eye level."

"They forced me to do it," continues Deri, referring to the judges and the prosecutor's office during his trial. "After the reading the decision in a live broadcast, all the tough statements made there about my personality, about my character traits, which had no connection to the legal evidence. And there is no question that their goal, and it hurts me to say this, was to destroy me in the elections so I wouldn't run again, so that Shas would sustain a major blow. I have no doubt they wanted me to leave the courtroom and be pelted by tomatoes and eggs. That's why I had no choice."

The idea of using a famous name like Emil Zola, and his essay "J'Accuse," which was written 99 years earlier in France, was Zohar's. Zohar was the one who presented Deri as a dual character - both Alfred Dreyfus and Emil Zola, both the victim and the prophet at the gate who warns of an unfair trial. Zohar and Calderon made broad use of the material filmed by Calderon, but it served mainly to accompany the heart of the film: a long and detailed monologue by Deri alone in front of the camera.

This part of the film was made already the day after the court decision, without a written text, in one shot - Deri in a jacket, white shirt and tie, behind him pictures of Rabbi Ovadia and Kabbalist Rabbi Kadouri. Calderon: "Aryeh entered his office, which was then in a Jerusalem office building, and told us: 'I don't want anyone in the room.' We set a camera on a tripod, pulled a monitor outside the room and he just kept talking, alone in the room. Uri Zohar and I were sitting on the other side, and occasionally we entered only to change the cassette. He used up three cassettes there."

After the filming Calderon went into the street to film the rally and the homes of then-police commissioner Yaakov Turner and the judges, Dorit Beinisch who at the time was the state prosecutor, and public prosecutor Yehoshua Resnick. In the movie these photographs of the houses are accompanied by classical music, which is replaced by the crying of a baby when the apartment in the building where Aryeh Deri lived with his eight children is shown on screen.

Deri: "After that we secluded ourselves for an entire week, Uri and Shmulik Calderon, the three of us alone, and we worked liked crazy in the editing room. At the time there were no amulets, no memorial candles, no rabbinic blessings - there was nothing in the Shas election broadcasts, only the videotape."

After it turned out that there was no machine in Israel capable of quickly printing tens of thousands of copies, Deri sent someone abroad to order 250,000 copies from a laboratory in Austria, he returned with a container, and Shas activists began to set up stalls all over the country. The tapes were initially sold for NIS 10. When Rabbi Ovadia Yosef found out, recalls Deri, "he started to shout at me, 'Why are you so cheap, selling it for NIS 10? Don't you understand that every such tape brings us votes?' I said that I didn't have enough tapes and I didn't believe in free gifts, because if people buy there's a chance they'll value them too. But he continued to shout, he said to me, 'I'll get you every donation you want in the world, the main thing is to distribute them.'"

Calderon says they were extremely cautious with the media when it came to the movie. "The media played a very important role in creating curiosity about the film. Everyone talked about the fact that there was a tape, a hot tape, and what happened was that all the copies were grabbed up, and people were willing to pay NIS 100 for a tape. They came to blows over it. Aryeh told me that had he had another million shekels and more time, he would have printed more. I personally am convinced that we could have won 21 seats."

Deri does not regret the tape, but now thinks that it caused him personal damage. "I clearly lost out from it, I have no doubt. I have no doubt that had there not been a tape and had I listened to the lawyers and resigned right after the District Court decision, I have no doubt that I would have won the appeal. They told me: 'You can't attack the entire world, go to an election campaign, and then come to appeal,' and they were right."

Did it hurt you politically as well?

"I'm at peace with myself because I listened to the opinion of the sages, but if some Deri were to ask my advice about the same situation, I would tell him not to do it."

One of his associates says that "it's no secret that the tape harmed him, in the final analysis, within Shas as well. You have to understand: This tape is to a certain extent Aryeh's tragedy. The party buried Aryeh's revolutionary voice from 'J'Accuse,' and immediately after the 1999 elections went in humiliation into a government with Barak, the same Barak who before the elections had said 'Anyone but Deri.' They threw out Aryeh, and all the masses who stood by him felt cheated. This film is full of promises that Deri couldn't keep because they threw him out."

And what now? Deri says he is returning to politics "after the moral turpitude is over. I will apparently come back during the holidays, maybe after, maybe before." It is still unclear whether his comeback will be via Shas, which has been led for the past decade by Minister Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia's favorite, or in another context. It is possible that Deri himself has not yet decided. Will he once again be the same revolutionary portrayed in the movie? "I won't return to ideas of protest and war, but I want to continue this revolution of all the development towns, of all the Sephardim, to give them the best educational, spiritual and material conditions, that is still a burning issue for me."